Dear EarthTalk: Can you fill me in on what the “Just Label It” campaign is and what it is trying to accomplish? -- Eric Altieri, Columbus, OH
Just Label It is an effort spearheaded by organic farmers and food producers, consumer and public health advocates and environmentalists to persuade the federal government to require that foods with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients be labeled accordingly. Consumers have a right, they believe, to be able to make informed choices about which foods they put into their bodies and support with their pocketbooks.
Most Americans aren’t aware that some 80 percent of processed foods at grocery stores contain GE (also known as “genetically modified,” or GM) ingredients—yet in polls 93 percent of us support the notion of mandatory labeling of such foods. At present the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't require labels for foods with GE ingredients.
|At present the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration doesn't require labels
for foods with genetically modified
ingredients, but labeling proponents
believe consumers have a right to be
able to make informed choices about
which foods they put into their bodies
and support with their pocketbooks.
Proponents of Just Label It worry that genetically engineered plants (and animals) could wreak havoc on human health and natural ecosystems, given how little we know about them and their ability to proliferate beyond our control. Among the concerns: There has been no long-term health safety testing on GE ingredients because they are so new; unexpected mutations can occur which can introduce unknown toxins into the food supply; the increasing use of herbicide-resistant genes in crops is leading to the overuse of herbicides in general; and the planting of GE crops that are programmed to generate their own pesticides means that more pesticides are in our farms and fields than ever before. Perhaps most worrisome of all is that, unlike chemical pollution or even nuclear contamination, so-called “genetic pollution” (as some critics refer to GE) cannot be cleaned up after the fact once the proverbial genie is out of the bottle.
“What unifies many of us is the belief that it’s our right to know,” Just Label It organizers report. The idea for the campaign grew out of a 2011 meeting of organic stakeholders organized by Organic Voices, a project that documents the oral history of organic farming and sustainable agriculture.
The first order of business for the “Just Label It” campaign was to submit a legal petition—written by attorneys at the non-profit Center for Food Safety—to the FDA in September 2011 calling for the mandatory labeling of GE foods for sale in the United States. At this point, FDA is taking public comments on the petition and will issue a final ruling on it later in 2012.
Consumers can make their opinions on the topic heard by FDA regulators by customizing and submitting the form letter available at the JustLabelIt.org home page. To date some 600,000 people have sent along comments to the FDA due to the campaign's outreach efforts. Just Label It aims to get that number to one million by the end of spring 2012, and is now working with 450 different partner groups to help spread the word. Campaign organizers are hoping that this outpouring of support will resonate with FDA regulators when it comes time for them to decide whether or not the U.S. should join almost 50 other countries--including South Korea, Brazil, China, and the European Union—in requiring GE labeling across the board.
Dear EarthTalk: Cuba just began drilling for oil not far from U.S. shores and hopes to become a major exporter. What ramifications does this have for the environment? -- Betsy Shaw, Troy, NY
|Finding significant off-shore oil reserves could turn Cuba into an oil exporter,
possibly even thawing relations with a still oil-hungry U.S. Pictured: The
Scarabeo 9 oil rig while still under construction in China in 2009. It is now 30
miles off of Cuba's coast and just 60 miles south of the Florida Keys.Credit:
Cuba recently began drilling exploratory oil wells 30 miles off of its northern coast—and just 60 miles south of the Florida Keys. Earlier this year the Scarabeo 9 oil rig finished up a long slow journey by sea from the shipyard that birthed it in China to Cuba’s territorial waters off the capital city of Havana (the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba forbids such equipment going from or through the United States).
Geologists estimate that the rock formations off Cuba’s northern coast could yield anywhere from five to 20 billion barrels of oil. American foreign policy experts are concerned that Cuba’s inexperience with off-shore drilling could lead to a spill in sensitive waters not unlike the 2010 BP oil disaster. They’re also worried that Cuba could yield more political and economic power if it becomes a net exporter of oil.
Although Cuba is reportedly using state-of-the-art equipment and is working with experienced international drilling contractors, some U.S. environmental groups are still troubled: “A major oil spill in Cuban waters could devastate both coastal Cuba and the United States,” reports the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “Florida’s $60 billion tourism and fishing industries—as well as the Dry Tortugas marine sanctuary and deepwater corals in the Southeast Atlantic—are at stake.”
Today Cuba imports half of the 200,000 barrels of oil it consumes each day from its friendly neighbor to the south, Venezuela. The other half of Cuba’s oil comes from its own two existing on-shore oil facilities. Finding significant off-shore reserves could end its dependency on Venezuela and turn Cuba into an oil exporter, possibly even thawing relations with a still oil-hungry U.S. Indeed, if the find is big enough, U.S.-based oil firms may want in, and who knows how that will affect the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.
Given the environmental and political implications of Cuba’s foray into offshore drilling, EDF led a delegation to the island nation in September 2011. The goal of the delegation, which included co-chair of the BP oil spill commission and former EPA Administrator William Reilly, was to assess Cuba’s plans and to share lessons learned about the risks of offshore drilling with officials there. “The trip put the spotlight on the lack of dialogue between the United States and Cuba on how to prepare and respond to an oil spill in Cuban waters,” says Lee Hunt of the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), one of the trip’s organizers. EDF, IADC and others would like to see the Obama administration initiate direct negotiations with Cuba to ensure that sufficient environmental and safety standards are in place.
“It’s a sensitive political issue because if there were a spill, U.S. technology might be prevented from being quickly deployed due to the long-running U.S. embargo of Cuba,” reports EDF. “The United States has more than 5,000 wells in its territorial waters in the Gulf. But none are nearly as close to the Florida coast as the proposed sites off Havana.”
But with the test drilling already underway, Cuba isn’t waiting around for U.S. input. No doubt, if the exploratory wells are a success, Cuban oil will become a huge political issue.